Reading the Odyssey in Greek: Overview of Books I, V, and IX

Last week, I discussed my experience reading the Odyssey in the original Greek. Now, let me provide you with an overview of what we focused on in class as we read books one, five, and nine.

Book One

We begin in book one, in which the poet introduces the topic of his epic: he calls upon the Muse to tell him of the man of twists and turns (Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropon). We learn that Odysseus has been imprisoned on the island Ogygia, home to the nymph Calypso.

The goddess Athena begins her plan to bring Odysseus home to Ithaca at long last, but first she visits his son, Telemachus, who has been without a father for twenty years. The goal of book one, in my mind, is to introduce us to the problems caused by Odysseus’ absence: he has been gone for so long that everyone thinks he is dead.

In Ithaca, we learn that his wife, Penelope, is caught in an awkward situation: should she marry again, or should she wait for her husband to return? Meanwhile, all the suitors, the men who want to marry her, are feasting in Odysseus’ palace; they are consuming the riches of his estate, eating his valuable livestock, and drinking his wine.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, the suitors are violating xenia, an ancient Greek value translated into English as hospitality. Specifically, xenia defines the proper relationship between guests and hosts, as well as the treatment of strangers. The suitors have no understanding of this: they are uninvited guests consuming the resources of another man without permission.

Telemachus, without a strong father figure to teach him how to fight, does not have the courage and confidence to fend them off. Despite his lack of strength in this respect, he still treats his guests well in accordance with hospitality: he welcomes Athena, disguised as an old friend of his father, into his home, and gives her food and drink.

The actions of Telemachus create a contrast against the arrogance of the suitors. This part of the story introduces us to a key theme of the Odyssey: how to protect xenia from those who would violate it.

Book Five

Book five, which begins Odysseus’ journey home, concerns a movement from one realm to another: our protagonist shifts from the supernatural world of divine beings and dangerous untamed forces to the world of civilized men and of ordinary human beings. He begins trapped on an island in the middle of the ocean. He is essentially dead to human society, for no one at home even believes that he is alive.

Calypso offers him immortality, but to take her offer is to remain there eternally: his chance of living a normal life in human society with his wife and son would die forever. He would never again earn any fame (kleos), so essential to the heroes of the mythological age: it is fame–the stories told of one’s exploits–that keeps one alive after death, in the minds of one’s fellow mortals.

Image of Calypso from an 18th century painting.

Ironically, Calypso’s divine power–her immortality–is associated with death, while Odysseus’ choice of mortality–to be human–is connected with the idea of life and rebirth. His return to human society functions as a return to life.

Calypso gives Odysseus a new set of clothes before he leaves her island, but when he falls from his raft into the sea during a storm, her clothes drag him down beneath the waves: divine items drag our hero down toward his death.

A sea goddess, Ino, who was once mortal, appears to Odysseus and tells him to take off Calypso’s clothes. She gives him a veil, a piece of cloth which will guide him to safety: as a former human, Ino acts as a connection to the mortal realm as Odysseus crosses the divine-mortal threshold.

However, when he reaches land, he must throw the veil back into the sea. Ino, after all, is still a divine, supernatural being; though her veil connects Odysseus to the human world, it also acts as a connection back to the sea–to a world of death. Odysseus cannot hang on to it: he must cut all ties with the dangerous supernatural world.

Book Nine

Book nine features the famous Cyclops incident, which I discuss heavily in this previous post. In any case, this scene emphasizes the divide between the civilized and the uncivilized worlds. The Cyclops Polyphemus does not respect any of society’s conventions: he is not at all impressed by the kleos of Odysseus as a warrior at Troy, nor does nor does he respect xenia: he eats his guests rather than give them food.

A Roman-era sculpture depicts the blinding of Polyphemus.

To outwit him, Odysseus tells Polyphemus that he is called “No One” (Outis), so that when he blinds the Cyclops with a sharpened stake, the other Cyclopes are convinced that no one is causing Polyphemus any harm. Odysseus and his men manage to escape.

Being anonymous (being no one) brings Odysseus safety and protection: this is the strength of Odysseus as a hero. He is a cunning man who knows how to conceal his identity and use disguises to attain victory. But, to remain hidden is to deny himself the kleos: how can he, a great heroic warrior, become famous if hides himself?

At the end of book nine, Odysseus reveals his name to Polyphemus in an attempt to earn kleos for his cunning exploits, but this only brings destruction. As a result of his boast, he is cursed by Poseidon, the Cyclops’ father. Because of this curse, it takes him many years, in which he repeatedly faces death and danger, to return home; not only that, he is doomed to lose all of his companions.

So, though kleos has the power to grant a hero great respect and honor, perhaps even immortality in the form of stories and legends, we also see that it has the ability to bring death and destruction upon a hero.

Then again, it is in the way that a mortal hero faces adversity that he earns his fame: Odysseus certainly would not be as famous if he did not have to experience so many challenges during his journey. He succeeds in maintaining kleos, for we still read about his journey today, but he needed to face a great deal of death and destruction to earn that fame. In the end, we see how kleos rests upon the precipice of death and immortality.

Much can be gleaned from just these small sections of this great poem. Reading in Greek is a slow process, but going through the Odyssey slowly gives us the opportunity to think more deeply about its complexities.

In the future, I may post more about the Odyssey. I’d like to give some examples of what made reading this poem in Greek so much more interesting than just reading it in an English translation. Stay tuned!

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